Australia search for asylum-seeker boat feared sunk

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian authorities were on Saturday scrambling to locate an asylum-seeker boat feared to have sunk off the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, officials said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search, said a navy vessel and two merchant ships along with three aircraft were searching the area about 65 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island following a tip-off from customs and border protection officials on Friday morning.

"They advised us that there was a potential vessel there," an AMSA spokesman said. "It is believed to be an asylum-seeker vessel.

"We had a warship out yesterday, didn't find it. And today there are three aircraft conducting searches and also three vessels... (which) happened to be passing by," the spokesman told AFP.

"We don't have any information to suggest it's sinking now... but there is a belief that it may have."

AMSA said the search may last until Sunday in the area off Christmas Island, a remote territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and home to the country's main processing centre for boatpeople.

"When we are in situations like this we do seek medical advice about the survivability of people in the water. At the moment, there's a significant search underway, they will review that at the end of the day," the spokesman added.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare confirmed through a spokesman that the search for a "possible foundered vessel" was underway.

No details were available on the number of people onboard the boat, but vessels carrying asylum-seekers are regularly overcrowded with scores of people.

Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many paying people-smugglers for passage from Indonesia on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.

Hundreds have drowned at sea over the past few years while trying to reach Australia, with about 90 thought to have died when a boat carrying about 200 people capsized in June 2012. About 50 were killed in a horrific shipwreck on the cliffs of Christmas Island in December 2010, including 15 children.

Late last month, Australian authorities found an unexplained batch of life jackets washed up on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands off Western Australia state, a discovery that prompted fears that another asylum-seeker boat had struck trouble while making the journey. No evidence of a vessel was found.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said he had no details on the latest missing boat, but that vessels were arriving regularly, with more than 10,000 people landing by boat with the aim of seeking asylum in Australia since the beginning of this year.

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